More than two weeks after Chicago removed its mask and proof-of-vaccination mandates, health officials say that they are keeping a close eye on the rapid spread of COVID-19 in China, with cases soaring higher in the country than at any point since the pandemic originally began.
According to officials, the entire Chinese province of Jilin is currently under lockdown due to the surge in COVID cases, with more than 4,000 new cases of the omicron variant recorded in the country, according to a report from NPR.
Since the start of March, China has reported more than 10,000 new COVID cases, according to NBC News, and the country’s “no-COVID” strategies are being increasingly challenged by the BA.2 omicron variant’s rapid spread.
Dr. Allison Arwady, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, says that the rapid spread of omicron proves that the world will need to have its thinking evolve from eliminating COVID to coping with it and tamping down major surges.
“We of course are watching very closely, and I will say omicron in particular has proven that you cannot have a zero COVID strategy,” she said. “China was trying to do that, and it’s just so much more infectious that they are seeing big surges and they are trying to navigate what to do in that setting.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot credits CDPH’s monitoring system as an innovative and useful tool in not only tracking what is happening in other countries, but also in determining whether cases could soon rise in the city itself, thanks to a variety of strategies including wastewater surveillance.
“We watch what happens across the world every single day,” she said. “We’ve been watching with concern what’s happening in Europe and in China, and frankly I think that’s one of the understated parts of the work CDPH does is that monitoring system across the world.”
Arwady says that in addition to the wastewater sampling and evaluating data on new variants in COVID tests of Chicago residents, the city has also implemented extra variant screening processes at O’Hare International Airport.
In the city of Chicago, cases are at their lowest levels in months, with the city now averaging 132 new cases per day and falling even after the removal of the mask and vaccine mandates. Hospitalizations are also quickly dropping, falling to just nine new admissions per day, a 41% reduction over the last week. Statewide that trend has also continued, with fewer than 100 people now admitted to ICU beds due to COVID symptoms in Illinois.
Those statistics, and the ability to formulate strategy based on emerging trends, are what drove Lightfoot and city health officials to remove the mandates, and they are still confident with those strategies.
“I think that what people have to do because of where we are, which is some of the best numbers that we’ve seen through the pandemic, is make individual choices on what they continue to do to protect themselves,” Lightfoot said.
The variants currently in circulation around the world also give Arwady confidence that the city was right to ease mitigations. The BA.2 omicron variant, which is a descendant of the BA.1 omicron variant that ravaged the United States over the winter, has been circulating in the U.S., but studies have indicated that protection against the first omicron variant may be sufficient against the new one, hence why other countries are feeling more impact from its spread.
“This BA.2 may be driving the surge in some of Europe, but we’ve been looking at the science on this, and it looks like in studies conducted in the Middle East that protection against the original omicron is quite protective against that BA.2, and again, we’re at a point now where 77% of all Chicagoans have had that first vaccine,” she said. “There are many others who have recovered from COVID and have some immunity, and we’re at a different place than countries that have been different in terms of how their outbreaks have responded.”
Arwady said that there are certain factors that the city will consider if new mitigations are required, including an emergence of a “variant of high-consequence.” Such a variant would by definition evade existing immunity, including that provided by vaccines, but the commissioner says that no such variant has emerged, and that currently-existing vaccines are providing good protection against serious illness, even with the omicron variant.
“I can’t promise what the future will bring, but I do feel very confident that right now the risk is low enough that it’s appropriate, where people feel comfortable, to not have the universal mask mandate. If we get into trouble, it is something we could bring back,” she said.